My art school friend Myra was as sheltered by her family as I was. We were both 19 years old an spent a considerable amount of energy during our first year of art school convincing our parents that we should be allowed to embark on an extended trip around Europe. Once parental permissions were granted, we plotted and planned our itinerary, our necessary baggage, applied for our passports, got our innoculations and acquired phrasebooks in French, Spanish, Italian and German. Also we both purchased that young travellers’ bible “Europe on $5 a Day”. This we studied individually as well as together, so that we could determine what we wanted to see on our travels, and how we could manage our movements on scant funds.
One absolute requirement from both sets of our parents was that we not let each other from sight, and we carefully look out for each other during our travels. This we assented to readily as neither of us had travelled anywhere solo before and each of us had some trepidations about our upcoming forays into foreign places.
We had travelled around Northern France, Normandy and Britanny, Northern, Central and coastal Spain, and had explored the Western French Mediterranean. We had visited many churches, their crypts, museums, art galleries, alleys and byways, small villages, farming communities, bunkers in Britanny, open air markets, Foire Forailles, book-sellers stalls, specialty grocery stores, corner bars, Pieds Noirs restaurants where we ate meals of horse meat, all the American Express outlets in various places where our mail had been forwarded to. We stayed at hostels to sleep and sometimes in train stations’ waiting rooms. A few times we slept overnight on trains, most uncomfortably. We ate casual meals consisting of a ficelle, some sausage and cheese, a tomato, some fruit we picked up on our daily meanderings. When we stayed at hostels we cooked vegetables and pasta and washed it all down with some spectacularly cheap and bad red wine.
By the time we were in Frejus, two months had passed, and we were tiring of each other’s company. Myra rarely had her own strong desires as to what she wanted to see and do, and I got rather weary of constantly putting forth possibilities, usually a great variety of them, to see if Myra would like to choose one activity over another. She’s shrug and say “That sounds like fun, let’s do that.” This always in a limp and half-hearted fashion which made me suspect she was bored by most of what we ended up doing.
In the hostel in Bordeaux, I had met Santiago, a young architect from Argentina who had just completed his degree at an Eastern US university. He had embarked on a three month tour of Romanesque and Gothic churches in order to study their plan footprints and their attached and adjacent enclosures. He showed me a set of drawings he had done up to this time, carefully explaining the differences from one cathedral’s footprint to the next. He said Bordeaux had a range of churches showing gradual shift from the Romanesque to the Gothic, and proposed to take Myra and me and any other denizens of the hostel on a study tour the next day. I rounded up the victims (ahem, fellow curious travellers) and bright and early the next day we trooped off to an exhilarating and exhausting journey from church to church around Bordeaux.
By the time we had made careful tours of only three Romanesque churches, many of our companions flagged and insisted on sitting in outside cafes, drinking wine, while Santiago and I tackled yet another examination of some obscure cathedral. He and I happily sketched and photographed, asked permission from the sacristan to visit the crypt, to go up in the campanile. It was while we were in the tower examining the bells and how they were anchored that Santiago turned to me and asked me to consider travelling with him through Northern and Central Spain where we could together study the cathedrals he had determined worthy of his examination. “A strictly virtuous companionship” he expressed. “You are someone with whom I can be quiet, do the necessary thinking, and drawing and photographing, and I think you would know how to occupy yourself fruitfully in your own drawings and studies.” He asked me to let him know by the end of the day, if this would be a travel arrangement I would agree to.
Over dinner back at the hostel I discussed this proposal with Myra. When she looked crest-fallen, with a slightly abandoned air, I hastened to reassure her that in spite such an offer being terribly enticing, I had not forgotten my promises to both our parents. We would continue our journey together. She reacted with relief, wherupon I sought out Santiago in the crowded lounge and explained as to why I could not go off with him. He said, “Why, you are like one of our honourable Argentinian young women, no wonder I find you so amenable and comfortable!” So we arranged to meet up in Barcelona in a month’s time at the Parc Guell’s restaurant and share travel stories. He hugged me and wished us a good journey. ( We did meet up at the Parc Guell a month later, as arranged, where we looked at each other’s drawings over a bottle of wine)
So here we were in the hostel at Frejus, Myra and I, sunburned and starved after a long walk along the beach to St Tropez and back to Frejus. Myra had read a lot about St. Tropez, and how famous actors such as Brigitte Bardot hung her hat there, so she insisted we had to see what it was like. She absolutely had to buy a bikini from one of the shops in that village.
We had shopped for food on the walk back to the hostel – some pasta, garlic, butter, cheese and tomatoes. In the communal kitchen I messed around inventing a tomato sauce, while Myra cooked up the pasta and amused herself by throwing tendrils up to the ceiling to see when they would stick there. She maintained that pasta that stuck to the ceiling meant that it was all cooked and was ready to consume. A couple of young men from Mozambique were frying up horse meat steaks next to us and were plying us with some really awful red wine. We all decided to share our feasts, as long as they kept the wine flowing.
So, happily we consumed at leisure, what, in hindsight, was a terrible meal – sticky pasta, unspiced sauce and greasy tough horse steaks. But, with the wine it all went down well, and in the fashion of meetings in hostels we got along famously and filled each other in on where we had come from, where we were going and what we found amazing during our journeys. The wine soon got to me, and I excused myself to go to bed, leaving Myra to entertain the young guys. Went off, had a cold shower (hot water?, what hot water?) and fell onto the bunk.
Sometime after lights out, Myra woke me up from an uncomfortable sunburned sleep. She sat on the end of my bunk, excited, swinging her legs and looking quite happy. “G. I have made up my mind that I will go with the boys from Mozambique tomorrow. They want to go to the Le Mans car races, and that sounds so exciting! I will meet you in Rome in three weeks time and will send you a letter at the American Express office there as to where we should meet and on what day.” Groggy, I muttered “Okay, but what about the promise we made our parents? I am quite happy to carry on alone, but how do we handle reassuring our parents that we are being looked after?” Myra, confident, cautioned “No need to mention this to anyone at home. Promise me you’ll say nothing about this?” “Okay. ” I agreed, turned over and went back to sleep.
The following morning, we were late emerging from our sunburned sleep. Most of the hostel residents were headed down the road. Only Myra, I, the two boys from Mozambique and a young man in his early thirties were left in the communal lunchroom. We all had our packs and bags sitting by our tables, and the young man had made a pot of coffee that he shared with the rest of us sleepy ones. Myra launched into a reiteration about how exciting it would be to go to Le Mans, how she wished i would go along, and how guilty she felt leaving me to travel on alone. She asked what my plans were, so launching into details about going to St Paul de Vence, Cap Ferrat, Cap D’Ail, Monaco and Menton, I hastened to reassure her I would be all right travelling on my own.
She went off to wash down the kitchen, the boys swept the lunch-room and washed down the tables, I swept and washed the hostel vestibule, and the young man swept the stairs and walkways to the front door. Myra and the Mazambiquians hefted their gear, hugged me good-bye and went their way toward the main road. The young man appeared with a shiny Norton motorbike upon which he strapped his pack. He waited to walk me to the train station, and on the way there introduced himself and explained he still had a week of his holiday to spend before going back to England to his job as a photography technician. “Do you feel just a little bit nervous being on your own so suddenly? ” he asked. Had to admit that yes, it was a bit daunting. “Would you mind we met in a week’s time at the hostel for dinner in Cap D’Ail?” he asked quietly. “Would you really do that?” I quizzed him. “Sure”, said he “I will cook, and we can talk about your adventures on your own up to that time, and the next day I’ll have to ride off to England and go back to work. Once you meet up with your friend in Rome you’ll be able to tell your her that a young man waited for you and cooked you dinner when you arrived in Cap D’Ail!”
A week later, I trudged up the hill to the hostel in Cap D’Ail. Parked by the front entrance was a black Norton motorbike. My heart lifted in gratitude. Robert was waiting for me with prawns and a Nicoise salad and a small bottle of wine. We toasted “To new friends, and to future adventures!”